26 Jun 2015

Interview with Dash Sekhar, EUSA Vice President Academic Affairs (2014-15)

In this interview we talk to Dash Sekhar, who served as sabbatical Vice-President (Academic Affairs) at Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA). Prior to that, he completed a Joint Honours degree in Mathematics and Music, coming here as an international student. You can find more from him on his Twitter account (@Dashmundo)

1. You’ve not long finished your sabbatical year at EUSA. Tell us a bit about how the year went and some of your achievements. And how did you get involved in representation in the first place?

It was a good year! My broader goal was essentially “students taking charge of their education”, and we achieved a lot of that via some crucial wins – a brand new course framework built around “student-created courses”, a student-staff collaboration to create an “Intro to Gender Studies” course (hopefully the beginnings of a proper Gender network), as well as some significant developments in Tutor pay arrangements and some movement around student co-creation more broadly.

There’s also some of the less glitzy changes that I’m really happy about – we utilised the regulations/quality assurance committees and some vital meetings really well this year to help give Course Representation a lot of support. It’s led to quite a few projects that will buff up our grassroots academic representation a lot, which is exciting! We got a lot done in the Academic end this year, with a combination of good timing and the right amounts of pressure, and we’re also lucky in EUSA where we have really good staff support for this area.

In terms of representation generally, I guess it was being part of a wider student movement that wanted to democratise their Higher Education – we had a highly politicised campus during my degree, which I got involved with. Combining that student activism with my interest in pedagogy generally brought me into this role!

2. An increasingly important concept for the sector is partnership between staff and students in shaping learning and teaching. What does partnership in this sense mean to you?

I think true partnership in education involves students and staff shaping their learning and teaching as equal partners. This involves building the appropriate infrastructure within courses to enable it – course review discussions, open conversations, creating learning resources – but also the wider infrastructure. That wider infrastructure involves the quality assurance structures, all levels of University governance, and also student funding. Students valued as equal partners in all the factors affecting their education will also unleash their potential in shaping their learning and teaching. But for now, the classroom is a good start!

I think the critical point that underpins these thoughts is that I’d like to see most structures in all sectors involve cooperation and co-creation, and education is no different. I think people perform best when they’re allowed to engage equally as partners – why shouldn’t they co-create their educational experience?

3. You mentioned the “Intro to Gender Studies” course created through student-staff collaboration. How did this idea come about?

It was the convergence of a couple of manifesto points – one of the campaigns we were running was to help establish a new Centre for Gender Studies in the University, and another priority was to involve students in the creation of curriculum. When the idea of an introduction module came to be, originally seen as a first step to bring staff from all ends of the University together and collaborate, the opportunity to involve students within that creation process was ripe.

The staff involved also thought it was an excellent idea, and that was then integrated as a critical part of the whole initiative, and in fact was part of the job criteria when hiring a new academic staff member who would be coordinating this project.

4. How easy was it to get staff and students to work together on this?

Perhaps it was the field we were in, but the idea was quite warmly received by academic staff. The harder sell was always within the administrators/Heads of Schools, where we need to devise clear guidelines of how we see this co-creation working, and the resource implications it would have. Once that’s clear, everyone involved was quite keen to move forward. I’d like to think academics are inherently quite happy to share power most of the time – it’s just giving them the clear opportunity to try.

In terms of students, with the idea originally being a student campaign, it was very easy to sell the idea of being involved. We’re excited to see what comes out of the creation process next year!

5. How do you think we can promote staff-student collaboration on curriculum design more generally? What do you see as the benefits to each party?

I think the idea itself is easy to sell. As soon as an academic has had a conversation with any student about their curriculum beyond a superficial level, they can already see how the conversation can enrich the course curriculum – learning resources as a base level, all the way to content and assessment once wider conversation happens.

The benefits to the student are clear – a personalised curriculum that they can grapple with even deeper, having a personal stake in it. For staff too, the idea of students being engaged with their material can have massive benefits, and “crowdsourcing” their work may even take pressure off.

I think what needs to be clearly looked at to properly mainstream this practice is proper resources on the staff/student time involved. I think it’s important to bust myths around how much of a time commitment these projects can be. Alternatively, funding staff/students properly can be a proper enabler too – if projects take time, academics need to know they’ll be supported by their departments. Remove those barriers and we’ll see these projects mainstreamed in no time!

6. You’ve clearly caught the quality bug! What lies ahead for you after sabbatical life? And how has your role helped your employability?

I definitely have! I’m afraid I’m leaving the education sector for now, unfortunately. As an international student, roles were hard to find with a tight visa deadline and all the prerequisites, so I’m going to be doing some work within Data Governance/Analytics for a while – but hopefully I’ll return at some point!

I think it’s a fascinating role. I’m obviously being incredibly biased when I say the education remit in a sabbatical role is the most fun, but I genuinely do think it exposes you to a really varied, complex set of problems. You very quickly have to realise just how many internal/external factors affect that small module that makes up part of a student’s degree, and navigating that field has definitely been fun and challenging. Transferable to any job interview, I guess!

Thanks to Dash for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.

This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.

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